Home Theater In Your Hand

Tiny projectors that pack a cinematic punch.

By David Isaac

Projectors carry a certain charm—maybe even a little nostalgia. Some of us still remember watching Super 8 home movies with our families. "Pico" or pocket projectors (some aficionados treat these as two separate categories) look to usher in a new golden age of home projection viewing. Pico projectors are a natural outgrowth of the mess of smart devices that can carry tons of content but have tiny displays. Take the iPhone 6s Plus. It’s considered big for a phone, yet it only sports a 5.5-inch screen. What it does have—in its 128GB version—is the capacity to hold 64 hours of HD video. If only we had a giant display to show off that enormous content. Enter the pico projector—a tiny package that packs a big punch. Here’s a look at a few of them.

RIF6 Cube Mobile Projector

RIF6’s stylish Cube Mobile Projector ($299) is designed with portable devices like smartphones in mind.This boxy baby is wrapped in a single piece of aluminum with two sides of black glossy plastic, making for an elegant, eye-catching design. When sitting on its tripod, it looks almost humanoid. You’ll be tempted to name it.

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The Cube measures a mere 2 by 2 inches and weighs only 4.8 ounces. It offers a native widescreen resolution of 854 by 480, and its brightness rating is a full 50 lumens. (The full refers to the fact that some manufacturers claim ‘50 lumens’ but measure from a distance of only a few inches away, exaggerating the effective lumens at actual viewing distances.) Using an LED bulb and a DLP chip, the Cube projects images at sizes of up to 120 inches (measured diagonally) and has a throw ratio of 1.99:1, which the company says is optimal for the Cube and gives users the most flexibility in using it.

The projector’s physical controls include a focus wheel and a power button. It also offers an audio connection, a charging input, a slot for a microSD card (maximum 32GB), and an MHL/HDMI port. You’ll have to rely on the included remote for all controls except focus and power, however; for this reason, the Cube’s manual cautions you not to lose the controller. Bundled with the Cube are a flexible tripod (with a clip mount and a charger) and a wealth of cables.

The Cube’s creators obviously gave a lot of thought to connectivity. The projector links to any device—from a gaming console to a smartphone—that can connect to an MHL/HDMI port. One caveat: Apple devices, most of which don’t have HDMI ports, and use proprietary connectors, require one of three adapters, which can cost up to $50.

We can’t say enough about the device’s mirroring capabilities. We connected it to a laptop, and the Cube instantly reflected the laptop’s screen, in this case playing GalaxyQuest without a hitch. It really was seamless.

The video controls accessed via remote are excellent for getting the most out of the image. You can adjust from 0 to 100 for contrast, brightness, color, and sharpness. We’re also big fans of the flexible tripod, which lets you position the Cube easily on uneven ground or wrap it around a bedpost. (It’s fun to watch movies in bed with the projector pointed at the ceiling—and it’s also easier on the neck.)

RIF6 Cube

by RIF6
List $299

The Cube does have a few shortcomings. The built-in 1-watt speaker sounds tinny—a common fault of projectors—so you’ll want to use the audio connection to attach headphones or a separate speaker. Also, the Cube’s battery life is only 90 minutes, which isn’t enough to get through a typical movie. If you’re near a power source, of course, you can watch for as long as you want—or at least for the duration of bulb’s 20,000-hour lifespan, (the equivalent of 10,000 2-hour films) or until your brain explodes, whichever comes first.

And though we applaud the Cube’s designers for including so many extras with the projector, the doodads do add up, and the portability goes down. Hopefully, RIF6 will consider including a soft-shell carrying case in the next iteration to hold the remote, tripod, and cables.

The Cube’s makers told us that they’re working on a case for the projector itself. And though they couldn’t commit to definite plans, they did say that they’re working on advanced displays, wireless capabilities, and even gesture control for future versions of the Cube.

Lenovo Yoga Tab 3

Lenovo’s Yoga Tab 3 Pro ($480) is an Android-based tablet with a DLP projector built in. It’s actually the second time Lenovo has placed a projector within a tablet: The Lenovo Yoga Tab 2 Pro was the first, but this version is light-years better. The main improvement is in the placement of the projector, which now sits within the rotating kickstand so you can adjust it through 180 degrees.

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The projector is rated at 50 lumens and is specced to project an image of up to 70 inches (diagonal); but you can go larger and still enjoy a watchable image. Lenovo’s projector also has a pretty neat keystone correction. Keystone is that trapezoidal effect where an image appears wide at the top if the projector is too low or wide along one side if the projector is off center. As you move the image along the wall, you’ll see Lenovo’s projector correcting for this problem and "snapping" the image into the correct position.

The single biggest advantage of having a projector built into a tablet is that content and display are completely integrated. This happy marriage means that all the streaming content you can imagine (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, you name it) is available right in front of you. No additional wires are involved, and the Yoga Tab 3 Pro delivers an astounding 18 hours of battery life thanks to its high-capacity battery, so you won’t need to plug it in. This is one of the few projectors with decent audio, too, mainly because it’s not a projector—it’s a tablet with a projector. The upshot is that you don’t have to hook up an external speaker for decent sound. The tablet’s four front-facing JBL speakers provide plenty of volume.

List $500

On the downside, you’ll face a learning curve as you figure things like how to turn the projector on and off, and how to access the focus ring—and as you get used to the whole setup. It may sound contradictory, but once you learn the system it’s straightforward. It’s just that getting there is not intuitive. Connectivity is another weak point: The tablet has only a Micro USB port, though it does support micro-SD up to 128GB in case you want to load up your entertainment content that way.

Our only other quibble with the design is that there’s no physical focus knob. Instead, you have to use the on-screen focus ring. The earlier Yoga Tab 2 Pro did have a physical focus slide (which provides a quick and more convenient way to sharpen the image), but Lenovo phased it out in the newer model. We wish they’d kept it.

While it’s true that the Lenovo Yoga Tab 3 Pro earned a less-than-scintillating Techwalla score of 73% (still recommended) based on multiple third-party reviews, those reviewers were judging the tablet overall, including its premium price. Most of them loved the projector—and we did too. The Lenovo Yoga Tab 3 Pro makes it easy to access and display all your streaming content in a big way.

Touchjet Pond Smart Touch Projector

The Touchjet Pond Smart Touch Projector ($599) is one of a kind—a touchscreen that projects an image with a diagonal length of up to 80 inches on any surface. The LED bulb has two brightness ratings. Plugged in, it’s 80 lumens; on a charge, it’s 50 lumens. It has a native resolution of 854 by 480.

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The projector itself weighs 9.4 ounces and measures 1 by 4.5 by 3.9 inches. Controls on the projector include a power switch and focus wheel, Mini-HDMI and Micro USB ports, an audio-out, and a power-in. Included on the bottom is a threaded hole for tripod mounting.

When you turn the Touchjet projector on, it opens to a home screen that resembles any Android tablet, making the whole thing intuitive for Android users, and not very difficult for Apple adherents either. The projector has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity and once you log on, you can browse the Web, get apps from Google Play, watch Netflix, and access content from your Google Drive. It has all the functionality of a tablet.

Pond

by TouchJet
List $600

On top of all that, you get a touchscreen. All in all, the projector is kind of amazing, and it takes a while to stop exclaiming, "Wow, this is a projected touchscreen... a touchscreen that’s projected... a screen projection controlled by touch!" You activate the touchscreen with a stylus (two are included). An infrared camera on the front of the projector links wirelessly to the stylus after locating a tiny infrared emitter built into the stylus’s tip. You can buy additional styluses separately—which you might want to do, as up to four people can use the touchscreen simultaneously. The bundled remote connects via infrared beam or Bluetooth. It, too, can act as a pointing device.

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We were pleasantly surprised by the audio quality, too: The 1-watt speaker is decent and useful. If you want better sound, the 3.5mm jack lets you plug in headphones or a larger speaker. The Touchjet Pond’s makers also thoughtfully provide a soft-shell carrying case, making this amazing little device truly portable.

The Touchjet Pond earned a combined Techwalla score 75%. In our view it’s a solid product despite some flaws. Yes, it’s not HD and the styluses work only when they’re in line of sight of the projector—which can be awkward—but this device offers an awful lot of technology in a compact projector.

Optoma ML750ST

The Optoma ML750ST ($589) boasts an impressive 700 lumens. It projects a native widescreen resolution of 1280 by 800. The lamp is rated to last for more than 20,000 hours.

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The "ST" in the projector’s name stands for short throw, making it ideal for projecting large images in tight spaces. The throw ratio is 0.8:1. The ML750ST can project a 32-inch image from a distance of only 2 feet away. Move it a step farther back to 3 feet away from the surface, and you get a 100-inch display. The projector accomplishes this thanks to a bulbous lens that protrudes outwards from the body of the device. Optoma throws in a soft cap to protect the exposed lens.

Optoma’s projector is slightly on the large side of average for a pico projector. It measures 4.1 by 1.5 by 4.2 inches, and weighs just under a pound. While it doesn’t exactly fit in the palm of your hand, it does fit on it. And for the amount of lumens you’re getting, the trade-off in size seems worth it, especially if you intend to use the device for work presentations.

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Optoma definitely had work-related activities in mind with this projector. It reports that the ML750ST is "designed for traveling professionals and power-users." The company touts the fact that you can give presentations and view Microsoft Office and Adobe PDF files directly from the ML750ST thanks to the projector’s preloaded Office Viewer software. You can view files by copying them directly to the device’s 1.5GB of internal memory, via a microSD card (maximum 32GB) or a USB flash drive.

The projector also can connect to a smartphone or tablet via MHL connection or via HDCast Pro—a device that looks like a USB drive and plugs into the MHL connection at the back of the projector, so you can connect wirelessly. The HDCast Pro is compatible with AirPlay, Miracast, and DLNA. However, we weren’t able to test it as Optoma sells that device separately.

ML750ST

by Optoma
List $589

The ML750ST has some other neat features, including auto keystone correction, and support for vertical mounting, which Optoma says makes it ideal for digital signage applications. We were also very impressed with the projector’s sound quality. Its 1.5-watt speaker produced far and away the best sound of the projectors we observed (Lenovo’s Yoga Tab 3 Pro tablet excepted). After hearing the internal speaker, we’re not surprised to learn that Optoma is branching out from projectors to audio products as well. The company’s engineers seem to know what they’re doing.

The Optoma ML750ST only comes with one connecting cable, a VGA-to-universal-i/o connection that slots into the back of the projector—and unfortunately, we had some connectivity issues. The included VGA cable didn’t work with our laptop, which crashed twice when connected to the projector. We finally connected successfully via an HDMI-to-HDMI cable. We also had to change our laptop screen’s resolution to 1280 by 800 pixels for compatibility, select ‘projector only’ under ‘display’ in our control panel, and select ‘HDMI’ as the output source on the projector itself. We ran into further trouble while attempting to connect a host of USB drives. After speaking with no fewer than three engineers at Optoma, we learned that our USBs were formatted as NTFS, which Optoma’s projector doesn’t recognize. When using a USB, you must format it as FAT, FAT32, or exFAT.

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Once we got past these initial frustrations, however, we were able to put the projector through its paces. In a test with Netflix streaming movies, the ML750ST produced excellent colors. It may be geared for work, but it can double nicely for entertainment.

We recommend this projector with the caveat that, unlike some other projectors—in particular, the Cube—it may require you to invest some effort on the connectivity front.

Vivitek Qumi Q6

Vivitek’s sleek Qumi Q6 ($599) is an attractive projector that will catch looks in any conference room, thanks to its rounded edges and splash of color: It’s available in six colors (seven if you count white as a color option). The test model we received was gold.

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This projector’s LED lens projects a very bright 90-inch display at 800 lumens and offers a native resolution of 1280 by 800. The light source is rated for 30,000 hours. Although the Qumi Q6 is geared for work presentations, we ran the 1960 classic film The Unforgiven (starring Audrey Hepburn and Burt Lancaster) on it, and the projector impressed us with its clarity and color quality.

The device is a compact 1.2 by 6.4 by 4 inches and weighs about 1 pound. It has two HDMI ports, one of which is compatible with MHL for smartphone and tablet streaming. It also has a USB port and an audio jack for external speakers. Vivitek has phased out the VGA-to-universal-i/o port from its previous model (the Q5). You control the projector from a cardlike remote or you can operate it by using buttons on the unit itself.

Qumi Q6

by Vivitek
List $599

At startup, the Qumi Q6 flashes a green splash screen with the model name; then you see a home screen that looks remarkably similar to the one on the Optoma projector, right down to the icons. You have three choices at this point: EZCast Pro, EZ Media, and Connect to PC.

EZCast Pro may be the most intriguing way to connect, as it involves linking wirelessly to the projector from your smartphone, PC, or tablet through the popular EZCast software, so you can stream videos, photos, or documents, or mirror your device. To make this process easier, the Qumi Q6 (unlike it predecessors) include built-in Wi-Fi. However, EZCast Pro is not the easiest thing to set up, particularly if you’re not familiar with EZCast software, and it may take you some time. Once set up, however, EZCast streamed short videos from YouTube without a hitch. But the connection did twice drop when attempting to stream a longer TED Talk.

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Unlike the Optoma’s ML750ST, the Qumi Q6 has no trouble playing all USB formats. It found videos, PowerPoint presentations (thanks to its Office Viewer software), and photos without issue. The ‘Connect to PC’ option also worked seamlessly when using an HDMI-to-HDMI cable. The device comes with a standard HDMI cable, an MHL/HDMI cable, a separate cable core (to reduce electromagnetic interference), a remote control, a soft carrying case, and user manuals.

We have only few reservations about this projector. One is the small size of the remote, which makes hitting the wrong buttons all too easy. If you have meat hooks for hands, you’re going to feel like the Hulk sipping tea from a china cup when you use this remote. A second issue is the sometimes complicated menu, which came to us with the language set to Spanish; figuring out how to set it to English was a chore. Our main misgiving, though, is that the EZCast Pro had some performance hiccups. Wireless connectivity is extremely appealing on paper, and the Q6’s built-in Wi-Fi is a huge plus, but the system still some kinks that need to be worked out. In all fairness, the problem may not lie with Vivitek but with EZCast.

To summarize, Vivitek’s Qumi Q6 offers an attractive shell, seamless connectivity (at least where wires are concerned), and a very bright 800 lumens that should take care of just about all your projecting needs. Its Techwalla score of 70% just barely puts it in the recommended category, but that mark may be low-balling the Qumi Q6 a bit. We think that this very small, very powerful projector has a lot going for it.

Beam Labs Beam

Beam Labs Beam ($499) is a pico projector in the shape of a light bulb. It fits into any light socket. Or you can place it on a flat surface and run it from a power cable. Its LED light source projects a native resolution of 854 by 480 at 100 lumens. It has a lifetime of 20,000 hours. But this light bulb, which has something of an industrial design, also houses an Android computer running on a 1.3-GHz dual-core processor with 8GB of storage.

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Beam, which connects via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, is controlled by an Android or Apple app. The team behind the device has also created a Web interface so you can control Beam from almost any device that has a browser and a network connection.

What are the most popular uses of Beam likely to be? Well, one use that caught our attention in Beam’s promotional video was someone slicing an onion in the kitchen while watching an instructional cooking video beamed onto the countertop. (Food Network fans take note.) Self, a magazine that focuses on women’s health, immediately seized on Beam for its potential to create immersive workouts at home. No doubt, when you put a projector into a light bulb, people will figure out what to do with it.

Beam Labs’ CEO Don Molenaar says the product will be available in two to three months. Its retail price of $499 is not cheap, so you’ll have to be highly motivated to own one. But the motivation appears to be there, judging from the nearly $760,000 the company raised on Kickstarter—over $400,000 of it in just a few days. The people have spoken. Give them their light-bulb projector.

ASU Cast One

ASU, a Chinese startup in Beijing, unveiled its Cast One at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. The company’s news conference at the show started out fairly humdrum. The founder walked us through this new smartwatch running Android Lollipop. Then he turned on the projector. The audience froze and gaped. One reporter, who had drifted outside, stumbled on a camera tripod in his rush to get back into the room. Yes, it’s a watch with an integrated movie projector that casts an image up to 60 inches at 720p.

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For daily use, the projector is meant to project from the back of your hand. The idea is to make it easier to read the screen on a larger surface when you’re on the go. The watch can project an image up to 6.5 feet away. A promotional video of a jogger pointing the watch at the ground to easily read his workout stats on the asphalt caught our eye as a great use for this mother of tiny projectors.

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ASU says that the Cast One will still be in testing for the next two to three months. But the product should launch this summer. According to reports, it will retail for $300.

Conclusion

Pico projectors are finding their way into the hearts of consumers. We predict that their popularity will continue to grow, especially as manufacturers figure out ways to squeeze even more lumens out of their LED lenses. Easily portable, they offer impressive displays in tiny packages, enabling people to view films and photographs, and make presentations with devices ranging in size from modest to tiny. Even the largest of these projectors can fit snugly into a laptop-size bag.

Photo credits: Techwalla, Beam Labs, ASU